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Sunday, Apr 11, 2021

You Probably Don’t Remember the Internet

You Probably Don’t Remember the Internet

How do we memorialize life online when it’s constantly disappearing?
For many of us, for better or for worse, the internet is home. Our communities are here, because many of them could not exist any other way. Superfans, shitposters, amateur experts, wiki nerds, grizzled forum moderators, obsessive sneaker enthusiasts, and hobbyists who spend a substantial amount of their time photographing vintage Furbies in human clothes, for example—the cultural and creative output of these communities is enormous and ever growing.

At the same time, the internet is constantly disappearing. It’s a world of broken links and missing files—often because the people in charge cast things off on a whim. In 2019, MySpace lost 50 million music files and apologized for “the inconvenience.” Around the same time, Flickr started deleting photos at random. Even though many of Vine’s most unnerving or charming or “iconic” six-second videos have been preserved, its community was shattered when the platform was shut down. It doesn’t help that the internet has no attention span and no loyalty: What isn’t erased or deleted can still be quickly forgotten, buried under a pile of new platforms, new subcultures, and new joke formats. The feed refreshes, and so does the entire topography of the web.
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Plenty of people are working to archive the internet as quickly as it slips away. The constantly crawling bots of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine and the efforts of amateur archivists and hackers are all part of an ongoing battle against what is often referred to as “digital rot.” But something is missing from these troves of data. Anyone, for instance, can download all their personal information from Facebook—a feature added in 2018 to give users a greater sense of control over their online life. But data alone can tell a future historian only so much, says Megan Ankerson, an associate professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in internet history. “The whole experience of what Facebook is or what it feels like to use it would not be able to be reconstructed in the archive,” she told me.

Even if every single website and every single online post were preserved somewhere for posterity, the feeling of the internet would still be missing—the petty arguments, the 3 a.m. rushes of inspiration, the thrills and heartbreaks and blue-light nausea. So how can we remember that?

Jeanne Thornton and Miracle Jones—friends and the publishers of the small press Instar Books—have come up with one surprisingly analog answer. Called, appropriately, Remember the Internet, it’s a series of pocket-size books about recent internet history. Each one tells the story of a hyper-specific online subculture from the point of view of a writer who was personally invested at the time. And each wrestles with the fact that these mico-communities are already slipping out of the cultural memory. “Telling a straightforward history of the internet is impossible,” Thornton told me. “It’s not useful to think of.” Instead, the idea is to approximate an exhaustive story by publishing dozens or hundreds of little ones.

The first Remember the Internet book—a personal history of Tumblr porn, written by the Daily Dot reporter Ana Valens—is out now. It depicts one woman’s experience of a creative and kinky subculture, and explains the diversity that was lost when a corporate platform banned one of its most loyal communities for unclear reasons at the end of 2018. In the second installment, due out in September, the writer Megan Milks tells the story of a late-’90s web ring that traded bootleg recordings of Tori Amos concerts. (Milks’s trading page was called “Cocaine Lip Gloss Sale Stand,” a nod to Lipsmackers and an extremely obscure Amos reference.)

Later, Quinn Myers, a reporter at MEL magazine, will tell the story of the “Glass Explorers”—a community of several thousand people who were dedicated to the supposedly life-changing innovation of Google Glass, an astoundingly ridiculous computer-for-your-face introduced in 2012. Over the years, they bonded through persecution, mocked as they were as “Glassholes” or Silicon Valley sheep, and gathered in a group on Google Plus—itself a now-defunct social network (RIP).

These short books are a good format for returning to subcultures that were mocked when they were popular or discarded quickly after. The writer Noor Al-Sibai’s account of the MySpace scene-queen community, which she participated in as a young teenager starting in 2006, will be the first book in the series to touch on the dawn of social media and Web 2.0. Today, if you type MySpace scene queen into Google, it will autofill “where are they now?” Most of the information you’ll find is just a handful of similar photos—girls with pink hair and emo bangs, boys with septum piercings, everyone dressed like they’re ready for Warped Tour.

But Al-Sibai remembers more than Google does: a space where “shit talking” was gold, where the best angles for phone selfies were up for discussion for the first time, and where teens “rubbed shoulders with micro-celebrities,” competing for a moment in the digital spotlight. “That was when the internet still felt new,” she told me. “We really thought we were doing something revolutionary.” Well, revolutionary “in a very aestheticized, Hot Topic, corporate sort of way,” Al-Sibai concedes with the benefit of hindsight.

Remember the Internet borrows its one-subculture-after-another format from Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ series about American music and the newer Boss Fight series about video games. But in the genre of intimate internet memoir, Remember the Internet has little company. (A handful of exceptions might include the array of books about the Well, the first major online community, built on Usenet, or the drugged-out oeuvre of the alt-lit bloggers.) Unsurprisingly, any attempt to authentically re-create a past internet runs up against some problems.

For one, online life often moves on before any given moment has been coherently summarized or processed. Plenty of headlines about the Google Glass enthusiasts were written during the golden age of Gawker, but Myers says that news blogging rarely lingers on a topic long enough to make a lasting impression. “There was just so much that happened and so much that was written about that felt so intense and real at the time,” he told me. “But looking back, so much is forgotten.”

Then there is the actual missing information. For Milks, doing research to remember a subculture that thrived in Yahoo Groups—which has been entirely dismantled—was especially challenging. Milks had downloaded some listservs at the end of 2019 but couldn’t access others. (By chance, one Tori Amos superfan kept an archive of about 20,000 emails from the time, and offered up access to Milks.) Al-Sibai had to reconstitute her memory of MySpace from whatever random screenshots she’d saved, or from Wayback Machine screengrabs of famous profiles. “Almost no profiles from the era I’m writing about still exist,” she said.

Ankerson, the web-history researcher, said that some platforms are better than others at maintaining archives, but the best hope for holding on to the internet is people. Amateurs, fans, or anybody who has “a passion to save something”—as was the case with the people who saved most of Geocities, or those organizing the current effort to document the pandemic year of Animal Crossing: New Horizons—will save much more than any institution will. I’ve noticed this myself, while doing research for a book about One Direction fans and the complicated arguments they had with one another on Tumblr in 2011 and 2012, before the site had an in-house data scientist or really any understanding of what was happening on its own platform. Many old posts no longer exist, or they’re preserved on the Wayback Machine but covered in blank patches where images and GIFs did not survive. Typically, I had my best luck interviewing people who remembered specific conversations or memes that were important to them—or just odd enough to leave an impression.

A project like Remember the Internet has such clear limitations. Thornton and Jones intend to publish the series indefinitely—ideally “forever,” they say, or as long as they continue receiving pitches from people who want to write about some sliver of the immense landscape of online. But Instar is just one small press. These are niche books, and the internet is so enormous that even a serialized approach will not come close to telling its full story. At some level, even if Instar is open to all suggestions, it will have to make decisions about what’s worth preserving and what isn’t.

Even so, the project’s vision is moving. Every person I know has a secret, intimate relationship with the internet that I, for the most part, barely know about. The series will bring at least some of those relationships to life. And it will remind readers about the fundamental precarity of their daily online life—as well as the way that precarity is unequally felt. “Platforms die because of corporate decisions that users have no say in,” Valens, the Daily Dot reporter, told me. Any world you inhabit can disappear, and it’s more likely to do so if it doesn’t have a real business case.

Ankerson is optimistic that more people are becoming aware of the way things get lost online, and realizing that they can’t rely on commercial platforms. She’s hopeful that the limitations of digital archives will inspire them to think of more creative ways to preserve the history they care about. “Early on, the web itself was a sort of subculture,” she said. “Now there are many, many, many subcultures online. And honestly, I would be happy if every single one of them had a book.”

I find this beautiful to imagine. On the wall of the average living room, where most families no longer require a multivolume encyclopedia, just dozens of slim volumes answering the first question I always have about an online moment that I didn’t directly experience: What was it like to be there?
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